SHABBAT: A TASTE OF THE WORLD TO COME.
May 2, 2017
Shabbat is central to Torah and Jewish living. The week begins and ends with Shabbat – an inspired beginning, a week of work and an inspired end to the week. From the holy to the ordinary to the holy again.
What is the message of this weekly cycle? What energies are being manifest in it that we should be using, riding? Why do we need a Shabbat every week whereas other festivals occur only yearly? There must be a most essential lesson for the neshamah in Shabbat which necessitates such close repetition.
There are many ideas in Shabbat, but perhaps the most basic is that it represents an end-point, the purpose of a process. The week is a period of working, building; Shabbat is the cessation of that building, which brings home the significance and sense of achievement that building has generated. It is not simply rest, inactivity. It is the celebration of the work which has been completed. Whenever the Torah mentioned Shabbat it first mentions six days of work – the idea is that Shabbat occurs only after, because of, the work.
A process must have an end-point to give it meaning. If work never achieves a result, the work is foolish. If an inventor builds a machine which maintains itself fully – fuels itself, oils itself, cleans itself – that is clever; provided that the machine produces something useful. A machine whose only output is its own maintenance would be ridiculous.
The result justifies the work, the end-point justifies the process. The pleasure of the freedom and relaxation which accompany an end-point are the direct results of the satisfaction of knowing that the job has to be done. That is the real happiness, the happiness of achievement. Shabbat is wonderful if a person has a week’s work to show for that week – then the relaxation is rich and full.
Shabbat is described as “me’eyn olam ha’ba” – a small degree of the experience of the next world. There is an idea that all spiritual realities have at least one tangible counterpart in the world so that we can experience them: it would be too difficult to relate to the abstract if we could never have any direct experience of it. Sleep is a sixtieth of the death experience; a dream is a sixtieth of prophecy. Shabbat is a sixtieth of the experience of the next world.
Why specifically a sixtieth? What is unique about the proportion of one in sixty? One who has a sensitive ear will hear something very beautiful here. One in sixty is that proportion which is on the borderline of perception: in the laws of kashrut there is a general rule that forbidden mixtures of foods are in fact forbidden only if the admixture of the prohibited component comprises more than one part in sixty. If a drop of milk accidentally spills into a meat dish that dish would not be forbidden if less than one part in sixty were milk – the milk cannot be tasted in such dilution. The halachic borderline is set at that point where taste can be discerned.
The beautiful hint here is that Shabbat is one sixtieth of the intensity of olam ha’ba – it is on the borderline of taste: if one lives Shabbat correctly one tastes the next world. If not, one will not taste it at all.
How is the higher taste experienced? By desisting from work. Not work in the sense of exertion, that is a serious misconception of Shabbat. What is halted on Shabbat is melacha – creative activity. Thirty-nine specific creative actions were needed to build the Mishkan in the desert; these mystically parallel the activities God performed to create the Universe – the Mishkan is a microcosm, a model of the Universe. God rested from His creation, we rest from parallel creative actions. The week is built by engaging in those actions constructively, Shabbat is built by desisting from those very actions. The Mishkan represented the dimension of holiness in space, Shabbat is the dimension of holiness in time.
Shabbat rest is an opportunity for introspection. What have I achieved this week? How am I better, more aware, more sensitive? Where do I need to develop in particular? Stocktaking; facing up to oneself honestly. This itself is a faint reflection of the external facing up to oneself which is of the essence of the next world. The meditation of Shabbat is the meditation of being, not becoming. But from that awareness the next week’s ‘becoming’ is generated. Shabbat ends with havdalah, the ceremony of ‘distinguishing’, the holy from the mundane. A profound lesson can be learned from havdalah which is part of the theme we have been studying. Shabbat exits, the week begins. There is a natural sense of let down, holiness has left, the lower state is experienced. This is why we smell spices at havdalah – to revive the wilting soul. But a deep secret is revealed here: we take wine for havdalah! Wine is used when elevation occurs, as we have noted already. What is the meaning of this paradox?
The idea is as follows. Certainly the week begins with the sadness of sensing Shabbat fade. The relinquishing of holiness is palpable. We smell spices. But the week’s beginning means a new opportunity to build, to elevate our present status towards another Shabbat which will be higher than the last, which will reflect another week of work and growth added to all the previous ones! We take wine! This is called “yeridah l’tzorech aliya – a descent for the purpose of elevation”, a higher and greater elevation than before.
So in the cycle of Shabbat and the week we see an elevated beginning, a descent, a loss of that high level of holiness, but only for the purpose of work: a return to the dimension of the beginning, higher, more inspired, more sensitive; closer to that final Shabbat and better prepared.